The collaboration has brought academic criticism and scholarship together with creative experiment, and opened up fresh possibilities for both theatre-making and academic research. 

Radical MischiefRadical Mischief conference. Photo by Sam Allard © RSC

Research is at the heart of our collaboration with Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).  Each year, students and members of academic staff join RSC artists in creative and critical discourse. Ever since the collaboration launched in 2016, it has provided artists and scholars with a platform to work together in experiments that aim to benefit the theatre, the University and society at large.

Examples of collaborative research projects include:

Signing Shakespeare

‘Signing Shakespeare’ began as a staff-research project, led by Abigail Rokison-Woodall, as part of the collaboration between UoB and the RSC.  Over the past two years, a team, consisting of Abigail, Tracy Irish (RSC Education Associate Practitioner) and Angie Wootten (Teaching Fellow at the University of Birmingham) have undertaken research into the teaching of Shakespeare to D/deaf children using active rehearsal room pedagogy as pioneered by the Royal Shakespeare Company.   We have worked with D/deaf theatre practitioners and teachers of the D/deaf to tackle the problem of access to Shakespeare for young D/deaf students.

There are at least 45,631 deaf children in the UK. At the moment these children are severely disadvantaged in the classroom, and only 41.1% of D/deaf children pass 5 GCSEs.  All children in the UK are required to study Shakespeare at KS3 and KS4; however, many children in schools for the D/deaf are not taught Shakespeare in their classrooms as it is deemed too difficult for them.  Others, in mainstream schools, struggle with Shakespeare as the methods of teaching are not easily accessible to them and do not focus on the areas which they find most challenging.  29% of deaf children use some form of sign language; however, there are very few BSL-based resources for studying Shakespeare. 

We have been working to create targeted resources for teaching Shakespeare’s plays to D/ deaf children, creating pilot workshops with accompanying films in BSL and SSE (Sign Supported English) and resources that can aid their understanding of and access to the plays.  The films, directed by RSC Associate Artist Charlotte Arrowsmith, have been particularly well received by students and teachers alike.  Not only do they help students to understand key moments in the plays and provide a model for their own work on scenes and speeches, but, being performed by professional D/deaf actors, they firmly tell the young people with whom we are working that Shakespeare absolutely is for them.

In addition to helping D/deaf children to work with Shakespeare to access vocabulary, metaphor, personification, alliteration, assonance, rhythm, and rhyme, the practice-based exercises and the resources that we have begun developing are also designed to help D/deaf children with the development of Theory of Mind, with which some D/deaf children struggle. Theory of Mind (ToM), the ability to attribute thoughts and feelings to oneself and others, is an essential part of cognitive development, helping children to interact with their peers and to understand their own emotions. The very act of taking part in drama activities by inhabiting a character is a way of developing ToM, but with Shakespeare it goes far beyond this, partly due to the level of dramatic irony and the use of self-revelatory soliloquy. We have been seeking to explore and exploit these moments in developing group and individual creative writing tasks which emerge out of role-play activities. 

The initial stages of research, running pilot workshops on Macbeth in three schools for the D/deaf in the UK, have shown extremely positive results on the young people’s understanding of the play, use of language and confidence levels.  Initial research also suggests an impact on their Theory of Mind, most notably through creative writing and the ability to write about thoughts and emotion in the first person.  Teachers have told us that the resources have increased their confidence in teaching Shakespeare to D/deaf students and reminded them of how to have fun whilst doing so.

The progress  of the project has been delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but we hope to complete and publish the films and resources for Macbeth during 2021.  

PhD research project: New Work at the RSC

Mary Davis was awarded the RSC/UoB The Other Place PhD Scholarship and pursued her research on new work at the RSC.

The Other Place student perspective: Mary Davies

Her title was ‘What are the Royal Shakespeare Company’s intentions in developing new work, and how does their collaboration with the University of Birmingham contribute to their aims for radical innovation?’ and was jointly supervised between members of the University of Birmingham and the RSC.

Her project explored the intentions behind the collaboration between the RSC and the University in developing new work. The project considered the objectives for creating radical work that provoke new theatre makers and what it meant to be ‘radical’ in terms of developing new work today. She highlighted the relationship between research and artistic practice in order to develop new work, and demonstrated how the reciprocity of this relationship between academia and contemporary practice is mutually beneficial to creative staff at the RSC and to students and academics at the University.

Mary has made a creative contribution to the collaboration in terms of developing and advancing its intellectual agenda and bringing it to wider attention in diverse academic and artistic communities. She has benefited from close involvement in the cross-institutional research culture involving the RSC, the University of Birmingham and its Shakespeare Institute.

PhD research project: Cutting Shakespeare

Juliano Zaffino was awarded an M3C Collaborative Doctoral Award in ‘Cutting Shakespeare’.

Jay began in September 2018 and is co-supervised by Dr Abigail Rokison-Woodall and RSC Higher Education Programme Developer Dr Daisy Murray.

Radical Mischief conference

On 20 and 21 July 2018, the University of Birmingham and the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) co-hosted an international conference, ‘Radical Mischief: A Conference Inviting Experiment in Theatre, Thought and Politics’.

The rationale for this unique event, attended by over 200 members of the cultural and higher education sectors, was that genuinely innovative theatre and academic debate have the potential to model change, thoughtfulness, and even a new democracy within our wider political culture.

‘Radical Mischief’ invited participants to come together and address the most important issues of our time in inter-disciplinary and sector-crossing conversation, experimenting with the traditional conference form, in order to facilitate and maximise conferring. The conference featured no uninterrupted, pre-written papers. Instead, each day, it hosted a provocative plenary conversation between high-profile figures with challenging views.

The conference then curated a series of focused conversations in different formats, led by artists and scholars. The provocations for these conversations broached a range of subjects, which included: race, religion, institutions, art, form, gender, violence, democracy, and difficulty and the public sphere. Each day finished with an Open Space session, in which delegates were able to propose conversation topics of their own. 

Hosted by Erica Whyman (Deputy Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company) and Ewan Fernie (Chair, Professor and Fellow of the Shakespeare Institute), ‘Radical Mischief’ featured an exciting mix of scholars, artists and journalists, in addition to the keynote speakers: Professor Jonathan Dollimore (Philosopher and social theorist); Emma Rice (Artistic Director for Wise Children); Professor Dympna Callaghan (William Safire Professor of Modern Letters, Syracuse University); Juliet Gilkes Romero (Journalist and Playwright); Charlotte Josephine (Actor and Playwright); and Professor Sir Roger Scruton (Writer and Philosopher).

It also provided the opportunity to showcase the University of Birmingham/Royal Shakespeare Company collaboration and encourage similar forms of collaboration between academics and artists.

Feedback from attendees:

I feel unbelievably inspired and courageous after that conference - I felt throughout that I already knew everything I was hearing (i.e. the information, the facts), but somehow the space you [Ewan Fernie] and Erica managed to carve out made me feel compelled to digest that information differently and allow it to transform my thinking and my practice (like any great performance art!). It was exactly what was needed here in Stratford, so thanks for all of your hard work!

Thank you for the best conference experience I have yet had. This conference has the potential to truly be radical, to uproot the current status of Shakespeare conferences and to blend the academic with practice in a way which, I believe, both crave, and which will ultimately benefit both fields.

If it’s true that the best conversations at conferences happen in the coffee breaks, then Radical Mischief was one long coffee break. The atmosphere was one of creativity and collegiality. The open space forum was embraced fully and an exciting agenda emerged which, rather unusually, focused on tangible, real-world outcomes.